Tuesday, June 10, 2008


Exotic dancer Princess Ling Moy (Anna May Wong) is the toast of London; her manager Morloff lives next door to Sir John Petrie of Scotland Yard, who was the arch-foe of the villainous Fu Manchu (Warner Oland). Scotland Yard has assumed that Fu is dead, but Chinese detective Ah Kee (Sessue Hayakawa) arrives with news that Fu is alive and in London, and out to get the remaining living Petries. Sure enough, Sir John's tobacco gets laced with poison and he falls down a staircase to his death. Fu himself is shot and escapes through a secret passage to Morloff's house where he reveals to Ling Moy that she is his daughter. As Fu dies, she vows to steel herself against her feminine nature to become his "son" and complete his revenge by killing Sir John's son Ronald (Bramwell Fletcher). Even though Ronald has a fiancée, he falls for Ling Moy and she for him. She tries to kill him in his sleep but can't bring herself to do it. With help from Morloff and his servant Lu Chow, she rededicates herself to revenge, pretending to fall for Ah Kee to keep him off-guard, then a scheme involving kidnapping and torture plays out rather predictably, coming to a solid, action-filled climax.

This is about average for a B-thriller of its day, but it makes for interesting viewing for a few reasons: 1) as a Paramount vault movie, it doesn't see the light of day very often; 2) though the action scenes are few and far between, there are some very stylish directorial touches; 3) it's one of the few early Fu Manchu movies that still exists; 4) it's one of Anna May Wong's rare starring roles. But for me, it was most interesting as a vision of a Hollywood "road not taken." This is one of the few classic-era films I've seen to have leading Asian characters actually played by Asian actors. I've always bought the argument that the big studios needed to have Caucasian actors play Asian roles in "yellowface" because there was no pool of Asian actors who could guarantee good box office returns. But both Hayawaka and Wong were popular in their day, and they work well in their limited time together—she is actually rather wooden through most of the film, but he's fine, if a little low-key. [Of course, the main romance in the film is between the Chinese Wong and the blond (and bland) British Fletcher; that kind of "exotic" romance was titillating to audiences of the day, but the censors would never have allowed such an interracial relationship to be consummated in a film.] Based on the evidence here, it seems obvious that studios could have groomed Asian actors as stars if they'd wanted to. I'll still enjoy watching Charlie Chan and Mr. Moto movies, but I'm sorry that Hollywood never allowed such potential talents to flower. [TCM]

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